Phelan M. Ebenhack, Associated Press
MILWAUKEE — Although he's preparing a speech just in case, Montee Ball swears it's OK if he doesn't win the Heisman Trophy.
Considering where he was in the middle of last season, buried on Wisconsin's depth chart and pondering his future in football, going to New York as a finalist for the award is enough for him.
"It's an honor just to make it there," Ball told reporters in Madison earlier this week. "That's enough for me, right there — just making it, just sitting next to all the other great players in the country."
After scoring a jaw-dropping 38 touchdowns and helping the Badgers to the Rose Bowl, Ball joins Alabama running back Trent Richardson, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu as finalists attending Saturday's ceremony.
For Ball, it's the high point in a remarkable one-year turnaround.
Ball became an afterthought as a sophomore midway through last season, falling behind John Clay and freshman James White in the Badgers' running back rotation. The low point came in Wisconsin's biggest game of the 2010 season, a victory over Ohio State.
Ball didn't play.
"At that time, I would never have thought that I'd make it this far," Ball said. "But I'm glad to see myself stick through it, really fight through that situation and stay the course."
Ball's father, Montee Sr., told the Wisconsin State Journal earlier this season that Ball considered transferring after that game — or even moving to linebacker. Instead, with encouragement from his family, Ball recommitted himself.
Ball scored the game-winning touchdown in a wild comeback victory at Iowa the following week, and took off from there. He carried the ball 20-plus times and gained 120-plus yards in each of the Badgers' last five games last season, scoring 14 touchdowns during that stretch.
But his real transformation came in the offseason, when Ball shed weight and got faster. The result was a runner who could dart past people instead of just running them over, and it's showing.
Ball's 38 total touchdowns are one shy of the NCAA record of 39 set by Barry Sanders for Oklahoma State in 1988. Ball has scored multiple touchdowns in each game this season and was named the Big Ten's offensive player of the year.
Still, he was nervous going into Monday night's announcement, unsure that he would be named a finalist.
"You have your doubts," Ball said. "I'll honestly tell you what I was thinking, I was like, 'I have to make it, I have to make it. I had a great season.' But then I also had my doubts, saying maybe I didn't do good enough. But thank God I made it."
The Badgers have had a pair of Heisman winners: fullback Alan Ameche in 1954 and running back Ron Dayne in 1999. Ball doesn't remember watching Dayne that year, but he and Dayne do text each other occasionally.
"He just said, stay the course, keep playing hard because that's the only thing you can control," Ball said. "And it'll all just unfold itself at the end."
Ball's late-season bid for Heisman consideration was something of a curveball for Wisconsin's athletic department, after throwing their early support behind a campaign for quarterback Russell Wilson.
As the season progressed, Badgers coach Bret Bielema played it down the middle, saying both players deserved consideration. Wilson said he would cast a ballot for Ball if he had a vote.
And Wilson was among the first to congratulate Ball after he was announced as a Heisman finalist.
"I talked to him right after they announced it, and he just told me, 'Well deserved,'" Ball said. "I also made sure I told him that what you've done for this team has allowed me to make it to New York, too."
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